9 Things Not To Say To Grieving People

talkingWords can wound. But I like to believe 99.99% of the awkward or unsettling things said to grieving people are unintentional.

The speaker hoped to be sincere.

The speaker didn’t want to add more hurt to the hurt.

Often the best choice when with grieving friends or family, who may be experiencing the worst pain of their life, is to say . . . nothing. But that’s the proverbial easier-said-than-done. We want them to know we care. We want them to know how we feel. We want them to know we’re willing to help.

Below is my current personal list of the “Top 9” things to avoid saying. Unlike some lists, this is not ranked. #6 can be as bad as #1. In a sense, they are in random order, but there’s nothing random about the power each possesses to add anguish to an already difficult season of life.

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#1 I know how you feel. No one knows how another feels after the death of a loved one. If the one tough death you’ve had in your life was your favorite grandmother dying, and you tell someone who just lost their spouse of five decades that you know what they’re feeling . . . you don’t. In the hospice where I currently work, we offer support groups for people with similar losses. Grieving spouses gather with others mourning a partner, husband, or wife. Grieving parents join with other parents. And so on. But even when a 65-year old widow sits beside a 66-year old widow, and both had caring husbands for over forty years, they’ve had different experiences. Maybe one struggled with prostate cancer for ten years and the other left one fine morning and died in a freeway accident. Yes, both grieve, but for all of their similarities, their differences can be immense.

#2 Are you okay? I’m guilty of saying this. But the truth is, after a death, no one is okay. When my father died following years of dementia, I was glad. I’d grieved for him, and for our family, during his wrenching illness. I prayed for his death. I know my mother, who dearly, dearly loved him also (reluctantly) prayed for his death. But when his death came, I wasn’t okay. Mom wasn’t okay. My sisters weren’t okay. I suspect it’s hard to avoid this question, and I think it can be expressed in certain occasions. But I hope it’s spoken with great tenderness, and only when there’s time to hear the grieving person’s answers. If you ask this, be prepared for a “No, I’m not” . . . and for weeping and maybe anger or guilt or silence. This “simple” question can open a door into a hurting soul.

#3 At least you still have your ________. Go ahead. Fill in the blank. Your spouse dies and at least you have your children. Your grandparent dies and at least you have your memories. Your father dies and at least you have your mother. Your loved one dies and at least you have your health. Avoid sentences with at least. Having your surviving parent, or health, or a house paid off, or knowing the person who died lived a good, long life . . . are all inadequate. Many would trade a lot to spend (at least) one more day with the person who has died. Nothing is a substitute for their absence.

#4 You’re young, you can marry again or have another baby or . . . And isn’t this correct for some? But if you’re forty-something and your wife has died, and everyone has a story about a cousin or friend of a friend who successfully remarried, who cares? You have just lost the love of your life, and you can’t imagine getting through today, let alone starting another relationship. If you’ve had a child die in infancy, and you are twenty-something and it’s “easy” to get pregnant again . . . but today (and for many todays) there is only unimaginable pain. It doesn’t matter what statistics claim about “problems with pregnancies,” or that a friend’s sister had another baby shortly after her pregnancy went “wrong,” right now you are a bundle of hurt.

#5 When God closes a door, God opens a window. Can I have permission to yank the doormat out from under the next nice guy making this statement? As a person of faith, I fervently believe God gives everyone a wondrous dose of curiosity and hope and options and more. But at the time of death, every closed door feels like it’s been slammed against your faith and face, and any so-called open window will snap shut and smash your fingers when you try to scramble inside. In grief, it’s like you’re on a game show that never ends and the smarmy announcer asks you to pick Door 1 or Door 2 or Door 3 for an exciting prize. It doesn’t matter what door is opened, because every damn door has a pile of festering garbage. That’s how it can feel after a loved one’s death.

#6 Call me if you need anything. Do you really think someone reeling from the death of one of the most important persons in their life has the energy, gumption, or attention span to give you a call? Or a text? Or an email? Or any old-fashioned or new-fangled forms of communication? If you utter these irksome words, will you diligently wait at home until your friend calls? I didn’t think so. Instead, you call them. Visit them. Take them to lunch or dinner or both. Please, take the initiative.

#7 Time will heal. No, time won’t. Right now, in grief, time can behave like an adversary. A 24-hour day feels like a week. Making it through a night drags like a year. An hour goes by in a second and all you’ve done is stare out into the yard. You recall a time when you ate well, laughed at jokes, and finished most of a to-do list. Now time curdles, creeps, and crushes you. Time is a heel pressing against your heart. Those people claiming time heals, because look how well they’re doing several years after their great grandfather died, while you are struggling after the death of your spouse, are idiots. They should have a grandfather clock shoved down their throats. Time doesn’t heal. It’s what is done with your time that nurtures healing.

#8 God/Allah/Heaven/Jesus/Holy Whatever . . . needed him/her more than you. This is a response likely to cause a griever to question their faith or smack you in the nose. Or both. Do you really want to worship a Supreme Being that “needs” your lovely child or wise parent more than you do? God, however you believe in God, is known as the creator of everything . . . so why would God “need” one of the few people that truly matters in your quiet, modest life? A companion statement to this is, “God took the person.” Please . . . no! In all of my years of ministry, I’ve tried to remember to say, “God received a person.” How dare we tell another that a loving God “took” our beloved from us.

#9  _____________________________________ This is blank because I’m guessing you’ve heard (or said) something that troubled you. If you’re willing, let me know what it was . . .

So, these are my current Top 9 (well, 8 so far). Or would it be more accurate to label them as the Bottom 9?

Next week, I’ll suggest “better” responses. Whether “bad” or “good” comments, I’d love to hear your ideas.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. You are so right about #1, I’d lost my mom and 5 years later my brother-in-law died. I sat with my sister-in-law as she talked about his death. I thought I could especially helpful to her because I understood how she felt. I’d intended to share my experience so she could benefit from my vast experience. As I listened I realized her experience was nothing like mine except her overwhelming sadness.

    Great list, I’ve printed it up and am sharing it.


  2. Once again, you nailed it, Larry!

    Thank you for sharing this. I very much appreciate your wisdom and experience in this area of life. Learning that we can’t “fix” the hurt tends to go against our nature to heal. We certainly do want to help, and it’s hard to understand that our quiet, simple presence can be a blessing to those who are hurting.

    I’d like to share this, if that’s okay with you.

    Thank you, again!

  3. Wonderful list, thanks! I just have one question: the bottom of #7 leaves me wondering if you have hints for how best to spend time so as to heal. I’m not looking for a quick solution or even to “get over it” really- loss changes us all, indelibly, though we can again become whole in a new way. Still, any hints about helpful, healing ways to get out from under time’s crushing heel would be great! Thanks again.

    • Norman . . . thanks for reading my thoughts.

      I will be careful with my answer.

      There is likely no way to speed up the time of grief or dramatically and quickly change how we are feeling. But let me tell you a story. One of the members of a grief group I led knew that evening was the worst time of all for him/her. He/she would come home after work and it would be awful. He/she thought about what might be a good thing during the “worst” hours. This person ended up volunteering at night for an organization that needed people and that matched his/her interests. He/she went through rigorous training for his volunteer goal (more time used in a good way) and eventually was “approved” and marked out time on his calendar for a worthwhile, regular task. I’ve tried to retain confidentiality . . . but he/she did two things that are important in healing from grief: 1) looking at when she/he felt the worst and searched for how to fill that time and 2) taking it one step at a time, with a goal in mind.

      In my friend Armen Bacon’s lovely, vulnerable Griefland (about the death of her son), part of her story of healing includes developing a key relationship. Mutual friends put her and another person together. Bacon nurtured that relationship. I think part of the healing we have must include some form of supportive relationships . . . sometimes it’s people who share “similar” pain, sometimes it’s new or old friends who are understanding and non-judgmental. But I believe we need to be around others while sharing silence, anger, hope, and the uncertain, fragile possibility of being better in the next day and the next day and the . . .

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